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Coast Guard Eyes Leasing Civilian Jail Ship to Hold Detainees

A boarding team aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton apprehends four suspected drug smugglers in international waters in the drug transit zone of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, February 23, 2017. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Mark Barney)
A boarding team aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton apprehends four suspected drug smugglers in international waters in the drug transit zone of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, February 23, 2017. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Mark Barney)

After a year in which the Coast Guard made a record number of maritime drug interdictions and sent unprecedented numbers of drug smugglers to the United States to stand trial, the service is considering the possibility of investing in a platform that would do nothing but hold detainees until they can be transported to the mainland.

Last November, The New York Times published an investigative story decrying the conditions under which suspected smugglers are held aboard Coast Guard vessels, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

It quoted a former Coast Guard attorney who called the ships "floating Guantanamos" and detailed conditions that are often cramped and sometimes frigid aboard the service's cutters.

For the record, the commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Paul Zukunft, has little sympathy to spare for these detainees.

"We can't lose sight of the fact that these individuals who were detained, they're peddling poison. They are responsible for 64,000 deaths in the U.S.," Zukunft told Military.com during an exclusive interview in December. "These aren't just down-on-their-luck fishermen; they have a choice. You can either fish, or you can be a criminal."

The Times story was told sympathetically from the perspective of one of these detainees, who described scant meals and fear due to being separated from family. Zukunft called it slanted and without an appreciation for the conditions under which the Coast Guard crews themselves work and live below decks.

The Hamilton class of high-endurance cutters has been in service since 1965, and still has four ships in active service.

"Go below deck and look at where my crew is berthing," Zukunft said. "The living conditions in any prison system in the United States [are] better than the berthing areas in my 52-year-old ships. We are operating out of prisons."

While detainees were in the open air above deck, Zukunft said temperate climates in and around the U.S. Southern Command area of operations mitigate some of the hardship of exposure to the elements.

But while Zukunft said he isn't too concerned about the conditions these suspected smugglers have to contend with, he has other reasons for wanting to get out of the floating jail business.

"We're spending about a third of our ship time right now moving these detainees from one ship to another to provide them the best creature comforts at sea until we can land them in Panama, which is the only country right now that will accept detainees for further transport back to the United States," he said.

There's just one other option available to Coast Guard cutters: to transit through the Panama Canal and reach Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In light of these challenging logistics, which contribute to the length of time detainees can spend on a Coast Guard vessel, Zukunft said the service is exploring the possibility of leasing a dedicated commercial vessel that would do nothing but hold suspects until they can be transferred to the United States.

The ship might actually be leased through the Department of Defense or SouthCom. It might be something like a commercial offshore supply vessel -- a platform abundantly available given limited offshore drilling activity.

While it would be a civilian ship, Zukunft said it would be staffed with Coast Guard law enforcement augmentees to supervise the detained population.

Though not the primary goal, he added that one outcome of acquiring such a vessel might be improved conditions for prisoners.

"That might have better accommodations than we have on ships with flight decks and helicopter hangars to at least get people out of the elements," Zukunft said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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